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by Emma Pooley
August 27, 2020
Photography by Richard Jackson
Last month former world champion Emma Pooley broke the women’s Everesting record, eclipsing the previous mark set by fellow Englishwoman Hannah Rhodes. Pooley is the first female rider to complete the enormous challenge in under nine hours.
Now that Emma has had time to digest her effort, she reflects on those painstaking hours in the saddle on that 13.5% climb on a hot July day in Switzerland.
I have long held several objections to Everesting. Firstly, it seems particularly insulting to the highest mountain on earth to denominalise its name. Secondly, it’s way too trendy. I called it a bandwagon that I would never jump on.
In reality, perhaps the main reason I was anti-Everesting was that I secretly wished I’d come up with the idea. Now that my pro racing days are over, and I don’t “have” to train for cycling any more (I tell myself that the occasional bikepacking events are just for fun and therefore hardly count as racing) I have become lazier and lazier about cycling on the flat. I always hated headwinds, and they hate me back. Riding with a group makes it bearable, because the work on the front can be shared.
But this year group riding was banned for a while because of the COVID-19 transmission risk, and therefore my solo or carefully distanced rides with one buddy became more and more about climbing, and avoiding any flat roads at all. Cycling became a game to see how much ascent I could fit into minimal distance – but never the same climb twice, unless it was some kind of intervals session. Repeating one climb to (and beyond) exhaustion seemed silly, living where I do in Switzerland with multiple beautiful climbs all around.
What changed this Everesting challenge from silly to alluring for me? It was the news of some of the best pro riders in the world taking on, and successively reducing, the women’s record. That got me wondering – purely hypothetically – whether I could even get close to 10 hours. Then Hannah Rhodes-Patterson smashed the record off the pitch, and I had to google her to see who this youthful rocket even races for.
I did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and marvelled at her VAM [metres climber per hour] as well as her endurance. I realised I was disappointed to have missed a chance to tackle the record myself – because there was no way I could beat that time. Then I wondered where the hell that thought even came from, since I never wanted to do an Everesting anyway!
But by then it was too late. The seed was planted, and it grew fast. I wanted to see if I could do it and if I could even get close to that time. It’s not that I wanted to break the record: just see what was possible for me. The record looked untouchable – I don’t measure them but I’m pretty sure that both my FTP and weight have changed from my pro racing days, in different directions, and not in a way conducive to faster climbing …
Nonetheless, just in case, I did a little bit of thinking about what the optimum conditions are for a fast time – no point in making the challenge harder than it needed to be. Therefore I sought out a steep segment with precisely enough altitude gain to require only 10 reps. And yes, I checked the topographical data with Andy van Bergen – no point messing it up due to a Strava or GPS error. And yes, I took the saddle bag off my bike – as well as the second bottle cage and my beloved bell. And yes, I ate pasta the day before and prepped 10 bottles with cold green tea and one bar and gel taped to each lid. And yes, I confess I worked out the split times and predicted power – just in case…
On lap 5 I cracked. The temperature had been creeping up, and now it was midday and the south-facing slope was mercilessly unshaded.
This preparation phase lasted less than a week – just long enough to buy and install a 11-30 cassette to give two extra teeth on the largest cog for the 13.5% average climb. Any longer planning it and I would have got stressed about it and scared, and found a reason to call it off. One friend, John, was also looking for a challenge so we agreed to set off together to take on the Haggenegg climb from Schwyz. Apart from him and his fiancée, only five other friends and Andy van Bergen knew we were going to attempt the ride.
I deliberately didn’t want to make a big deal out of it – this was a personal challenge, not a media performance. I feel I’ve spent more than enough of my life being a rubbish circus act already. I also didn’t want any friends to waste the whole day standing at the roadside to support, so we parked near the bottom of the climb and set up a little table for the bottles with their neatly taped gels and bars, and a cardboard box to chuck the empties. We went for a coffee and croissant at a bakery in Schwyz (croissants are my “high performance” diet of choice these days – see previous comment re FTP : weight ratio) and then off we rolled.
On lap 1 I was definitely buoyed by freshness and novelty – one other key feature of my preparation was that I’d never actually ridden the complete Haggenegg climb previous to that day. The power numbers were a bit higher than planned, but I told myself that was ok as long as it didn’t feel too hard. I’d settle into the pace and slow down to a sustainable pace, as long as I didn’t overcook it early on. A keen first lap would save five minutes – maybe for a coffee stop later on!
More worrying than the wattage was the fact that despite it, I was barely ahead of schedule at the top. What was wrong with my calculations? Was I even heavier than I thought? I hadn’t actually weighed myself! Could I save some time on the descent? No, my overly-generous estimate of 40 kph average downhill turned out to be about right for the steepness, twistiness, narrowness, blind corners, and poor road surface.
Any increase in speed I might have hoped for thanks to increasing familiarity with the descent was negated by the six tractors that were also doing reps up and down Haggenegg that day – by a twist of fate, we had chosen the local hay-making day for the attempt. Well, I suppose they do have to do it while the sun shines. To avoid frustration, I tried to think of overtaking tractors on every descent as a fun game – most of the farmers waving and smiling as they began to recognise me and John.
For the first four laps my mind was filled with a turbulent storm of these worries. But somehow I was holding the same (unrealistic, I thought) power each climb, pretty well. Maybe my powermeter was just miscalibrated? I realised that if I didn’t like the power number, the best thing was to simply not look at it. I focussed on enjoying the variety of bars and gels I had lined up for myself – every third lap a homemade salty Pocketporridge cakelet (banana and Vegemite flavour) to make a change from supermarket cereal bars. No, I’m not a fan of highfalutin’ fancy sports bars. What I really wanted was coffee and another croissant …
On lap 5 I cracked. The temperature had been creeping up, and now it was midday and the south-facing slope was mercilessly unshaded. The single 400-500 ml bottles I’d prepared, one for each lap, were so obviously not enough fluid that I felt like a total idiot. It would not have been a difficult calculation to realise I’d need approximately twice that. By halfway up the fifth climb I was so thirsty I wanted to drink the sweat dripping from my own face. How was I going to cope for another 4,500 m of climbing?
A few hundred metres from the top, I spotted a tap on the driveway outside a farmer’s house. No-one was there. I unclipped, propped my bike up, drank a whole litre and poured more over my arms and neck. The relief from the cool water was incredible. From then on I stopped at that house every climb – the time lost in getting of the bike, taking off bidon lids, turning on and off the tap, and clambering back on my bike was more than worth it for the cool refreshment and an extra 500 ml of water every lap.
It’s a privilege to be able to choose how you suffer – not everyone has that choice.
It’s a privilege to be able to choose how you suffer – not everyone has that choice.
Somewhere on the fifth or sixth climb I caught John, who is much stronger than me. He looked how I felt: toasted. He muttered something about a Coke and not seeing the point of the ride, but I could not stop to commiserate. If I stopped on that steepest middle section, under the searing sun, I knew it would be a terrible struggle to start again. “He’s a grown-up”, I thought, “he can look after himself”. “He’ll go and buy a coke then get going again; he’ll overtake me in a lap or two …”
Besides, I didn’t want to think too much about the point of it. That’s the thing: there is no point. The famous reply beloved of mountaineers: “Because it’s there” is beautifully, sarcastically, flippant. Lots of things are there – things that could usefully be addressed for the good of our planet and humankind. I could list a few but it’s too obvious. Riding up and down a hill for a few hours is utterly pointless. But then, so is a bike race. If we’re being totally reductionist, one could say that so is any kind of bike riding that’s not for useful mobility or transport of goods. Leisure cycling is just a waste of energy and an extra emission of CO2.
And so it was that on the sixth climb, my motivation for attempting the Everesting challenge crystallised and I realised that the reason was to push myself to my limit – not a vague desire to do a fast time. It’s a selfish and totally pointless motivation, but at that moment of realisation it made the thing a whole lot simpler, and mentally easier. If your limits are what you’re seeking, then the physical challenge is good. The discomfort is good. Even the pain (which is a word I’m always hesitant to use, given that I’ve never had to experience serious illness and true pain) is good. Because challenge and discomfort and “pain” are the limiting factors. (And glycogen and water of course, but with better planning those would be more readily available!)
It made me consider again why the Everesting challenge has become so popular, and here’s my conclusion: because it’s hard for everyone, and therefore it’s also an achievement for everyone.
The best words of wisdom I have ever heard for moments like this were spoken by Connie Carpenter-Phinney before a sportive in Boulder, Colorado. She said something along the lines of: “It’s a privilege to be able to choose how you suffer – not everyone has that choice. Some people have their pain forced upon them.” This is so deeply true when you reach that moment in any sport event when your body hurts, and you just want to stop and sit on the ground and hang your head between your knees. It’s so easy to feel sorry for yourself — but that’s totally mistaken! The “pain” is a choice, a privilege; and to indulge in self-pity is pathetic and contradictory.
There was an extra reminder for me of this privilege that day on Haggenegg. From lap 2 to lap 7, an old man in an electric wheelchair made his slow way up the same road to the top of the pass. I waved and greeted him twice each lap. On laps 8 and 9 I passed him (moving considerably faster) as he rolled back down to Schwyz. It made me consider how lucky I am to be able to ride a bike at all: lucky to have my physical health, and also incredibly lucky to be able to afford the equipment and leisure time, and to live in a culture where such sports are acceptable for women. It’s a privilege not to be taken lightly. And if that sounds a bit too heavy for an article about a bike ride, I can only excuse myself by saying that I got a bit emotional – probably due to hypoglycaemia.
an old man in an electric wheelchair made his slow way up the same road to the top of the pass. I waved and greeted him twice each lap … It made me consider how lucky I am to be able to ride a bike at all …
Laps 6 to 8 were tough but my mind was in the right place. I relished the challenge, the burn, the heat, the thirst, every little discomfort. My mantra became: “Hello pain! You are welcome!” A lovely friend Liz arrived and sat with John (the Coke had not saved him) by the car to encourage me and hand up my bottles (now unpleasantly warm, the one much-anticipated chocolate bar liquefied in the heat). I was enjoying myself, my mind was empty of thoughts, I was past halfway, and the finish line was approaching, I just had to keep it up. No worries.
Until, halfway up the ninth climb, I blew up — this time properly. No cold water was going to help me this time. Insufficient glycogen, excessive heat, riding beyond my threshold for seven hours … it finally caught up with me. The ninth climb sounds so close to the end but suddenly, for the first time, it occurred to me that I might not be able to finish the ride.
I’m all too aware how arrogant it is to say that until then, I never really doubted I could complete an Everesting. But now my legs weren’t obeying my brain. I was dizzy and nauseous. I needed the gel taped to my bottle but I could tell my stomach would send it straight back up. I couldn’t stand up to pedal – quite an issue on a steep climb with 34-30 as my smallest gear.
I started weaving across the road. On the ninth climb I was four minutes slower than the previous ascents. Those carefully collected minutes of buffer time slipped away oh so easily. And I didn’t see how I could do the 10th climb. The only way was to not think about it. Switch off the brain and ride on autopilot. Even reminding myself of the privilege of suffering wasn’t helping, because my body was no longer able to function properly.
Emma Pooley riding Haggenegg, Switzerland (although not on the day of her Everesting record). Photo by Richard Jackson.
On the 10th ascent I weaved across the road like a drunkard. I considered getting off to walk – then remembered that was against the rules. I told myself it didn’t matter how slow: just keep moving forwards and upwards. But when a climb is steep, and you move slowly, the low cadence is excruciating.
I was about 10 minutes from the top when one of the tractors beeped at me from behind to get past. I pulled over into a passing point and actually stopped and unclipped to let him pass. But instead of driving on, he parked right there in order to harangue me for riding dangerously and overtaking him on a previous descent. I was so tired, and upset, and desperate to finish, that I could not cope with this conflict. If I hadn’t been so dehydrated I might have cried. The pass was just there, the finish in sight at last, and I could not ride.
I didn’t have the energy to put together a coherent reply. Eventually he finished his tirade and drove on, still shaking his head in annoyance. I crawled onwards towards the pass, nearly stopping at the tap again even though a few minutes more of thirst should make no difference.
My mantra became: “Hello pain! You are welcome!”
At the top I stopped and looked at my Wahoo Elemnt. 8,681 metres of ascent. I looked at the time. Logically, I knew I should descend again and do a few hundred metres more – just in case I had made a mistake with the topo data, and it wasn’t enough. But at that point, logic was not a factor. I no longer cared about Everesting or times or records or Strava or kudos. I just wanted to stop pedalling. I was finished. My limit I wanted to reach? It felt like that limit had turned around and punched me in the face.
Funny fact: before starting the ride, I had assumed that I’d carry on and do another three climbs to make it up to 10,000 m – once I got that close, it would be a no-brainer. Maybe a quick coffee stop and a croissant, but of course I’d carry on! Now I was there: no way. Another three laps were simply impossible.
My arrogance in that assumption seemed like a bad joke at that moment. So I rolled 50 metres to the restaurant on the pass and bought an ice lolly and a bag of crisps, almost sobbing. I sat on the ground to eat the ice cream and thought about not riding my bike, and how good that would feel. Then I rolled down all the way to the car, Liz gave me a hug, I put on a clean t-shirt and shorts, and we drove away.
And that, as far as I was concerned, was it. I sent the activity file to Andy for him to check but I didn’t make the ride public on any platforms until I heard back from him that the ascent was verified as being sufficient for an Everesting (based on topographical data). In fact I considered keeping it forever private: my motivation was personal, and I wanted to be sure that really was my reason for doing the ride – not some silly desire for external validation.
But of course the temptation was too great, so I did make it public on Strava. Then there were a few articles and some people said nice things on Instagram and Twitter, which was very gratifying. But the strangest thing happened: I started getting messages and comments, mostly from women, thanking me for inspiring them. To be honest, I found this perplexing as well as (obviously) a huge compliment. That ride was just a selfish exercise in challenging myself; for anyone else it must surely look like just a waste of a day and a lot of calories — why should it be inspirational?
No way. Another three laps were simply impossible. My arrogance in that assumption seemed like a bad joke at that moment.
It made me consider why the Everesting challenge has become so popular, and here’s my conclusion: because it’s hard for everyone, and therefore it’s also an achievement for everyone. It’s analogous to a marathon in running, or an Ironman in triathlon: a challenge that everyone has heard of, not specific to any particular location, where time or placing is secondary to simply completing it. Moreover it’s a challenge that’s so hard that there’s no shame in not finishing it – as long as you did everything you could, any “failure” is heroic in a strange way – and for sure you’ll have an epic story about what went wrong.
Everyone who races a marathon or an Ironman does the same course, and everyone who finishes is celebrated for that achievement: rightly so, because it’s tough! But road cycling isn’t like that: the pros are lauded for the incredible physical challenges they surmount in the most famous races – but they’re “other”, because “normal” non-pro cyclists simply aren’t allowed onto the same course to attempt the same thing. Ok, there are a few one-day sportives on pro race courses, and there’s Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo – but such things are few and far between, and they don’t get much media coverage.
An amateur’s place in cycling is behind the barrier, in the cheering crowd, watching on. And according to traditionalists, a woman’s place in cycling is in a frock, giving flowers and a demure kiss to the winner.
Well, f*ck that. I didn’t take up cycling to just watch other people take on stupid challenges and consider myself inferior. If there are stupid challenges out there, I want to be doing them too! Yes, it’s fun and inspiring to watch great sporting performances, but they inspire me to try to do likewise – not spend three weeks on the sofa watching on. Beating myself up against my limits until I feel suffering is a privilege, it makes me feel happy and in a strange way, more alive. And I strongly believe that this desire for challenge is just as strong in women as in men – it’s just less commonly portrayed as a societal norm.
That’s why sport is empowering, maybe even more so for women than men. Yes, cycling needs to be accessible to beginners – but not all female cyclists are beginners, and strong women don’t want to be patronised with condescendingly easy rides. They also want to challenge themselves.
I think it’s the taking on of a major challenge, and accepting the suffering and risk of failure that are inspiring – because anyone can try it for themselves. With Everesting, cycling finally has a challenge that is universal, one without roots in the traditional racing scene and therefore free of road racing’s historical and pervasive chauvinism. Gender is irrelevant. Anyone can find their limits through this exercise in pointlessness, and everyone who’s tried it knows how incredibly hard it is.
I’m looking forward to many more women taking on the Everesting challenge and — soon I’m sure — someone else breaking the record. There’s plenty of space for everyone in this niche of cycling.
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